A few years ago, I met a woman; let’s call her Heather. She was funny, intelligent, down-to-earth, with a liver as seemingly elastic as mine, and we hit it off immediately. My bar for new friends is pretty high; Heather pole-vaulted it. After our third dinner together — and three bottles of wine and several hours of conversation — I was sure I’d made a bond for life.
Then I started following her on Instagram.
At first I shrugged off the inane selfies and oddly pedantic captions informing a seemingly imagined audience how to make “yummy” chia-seed pudding, or how yoga had taught her to appreciate her curves; this was 2013 and while Instagram was not exactly new, its customs and codes were still very much in flux. So she hasn’t quite figured it out yet, I thought. That’s okay. At least she’s experimenting.
But over the next six months, things only got worse: She was posting multiple times a day, increasingly in nausea-inducing poses with her boyfriend that looked about as staged as a rom-com poster: laughing and eating soft-serve on a stoop, holding hands while walking over a bridge, stealing a kiss post-run. Soon, they had their very own hashtag. It involved the word “lover.” I was traveling a lot for work then, and each time I mindlessly scrolled through my Instagram — in airport lines and long, jet-lag-riddled taxicab rides — it was like removing the pin from a grenade of secondhand embarrassment. I started making excuses not to see her. I realized the relationship was over for me when she invited me to her birthday and I found I couldn’t for the life of me make myself go. She might have been hurt, but I didn’t care; she had become insufferable to me.
We hear a lot of horror stories about people meeting online only to find that in real life they can’t stand each other. But what happened with Heather was the opposite — a reverse catfish if you will. And it’s becoming an increasingly prevalent peril to friendship in our social-media-saturated society.
Take, for instance, Julie, 31, who hardly recognizes her dear friend — a quiet, socially awkward individual with a biting sense of humor when among close friends — on social media. “She is so unabashedly self-promotional and bombastic,” says Julie, who is constantly perplexed by the deluge of come-hither selfies and self-important captions. “I think her social-media persona is so bothersome because it forces me, as her friend, to question who the ‘real’ her is,” says Julie. “As her friend, I’m faced with this uncomfortable conundrum of questioning whether the real-life her — the one I love and connect with — is the fake, or the one on Instagram is who she really is, or at the very least, who she really wants to be. The discrepancy between the two is sort of just … uncomfortable.” The girl’s lack of awareness about her social-media shenanigans has created a divide among their close friends. “We all playfully rip each other apart but this topic — her shameless posting — has become bizarrely taboo,” says Julie. “It throws off the group dynamic.”
Or Jess, 40, whose food-obsessed friend built himself into a brand on Instagram — one that writes in a “sort of forced, laid-back bro speak and always manages to somehow get across the fact that the meal was comped, or he was served something off a secret menu or was sent an extra bottle of some orange wine that we should all be drinking instead of rosé.” Though Jess can recognize some of his genuine personality in the pasted-on persona — it’s amplified to the point of being unlikable. “I just think of him differently now,” she says. “It’s like I know his secret side, but his secret side is also the side tens of thousands of strangers know him as exclusively, which is the weird thing that social does to us now.”
To be clear, this is not about whether your friend is “good” at social media. As Anne, 37, explains; “I don’t even mind people who are just plain bad at Instagram; not everyone is good at singing either. But when there’s a disconnect between the person I know and the person mugging for that selfie or purporting to love something I’m pretty sure they don’t (and if you’re true friends, you know the difference), it leaves me feeling a mixture of disappointed and embarrassed.”
We all know people aren’t one-dimensional, but thanks to the ubiquity of social media we now have to contend with just how disparate those dimensions might be. It used to be you could limit exposure to the less enamoring sides of your friends; let’s say if you didn’t like your friend Joe when he drank, you didn’t go drinking with Joe. But now drunk Joe lives in your pocket 24/7, ready to remind you how awful he is any time you scroll through your phone. Of course, the unfollow button exists for a reason. But the politics of unfollowing a close friend or partner can be treacherous to navigate. Sarah, 29, faced such a dilemma when she recently confessed to her therapist that she was so turned off by her boyfriend’s goofy social-media persona she began questioning their compatibility. “He thinks his posts are funny, but I find them cringey and embarrassing,” she says. “I felt like it meant something was wrong with the relationship as a whole.” Her therapist’s recommendation? Unfollow him. “She said, social media isn’t real and that if I love him offline, it doesn’t matter what he does online, I just shouldn’t subject myself to seeing it if I don’t have to,” says Sarah. But she couldn’t bring herself to hit the unfollow button.”I felt like it would break his heart because he considers himself to be really funny offline and online to everyone including me,” she says. Instead, Sarah’s settled for appreciating him in real life — and scrolling as fast as possible whenever his posts show up on her feed.
An unsavory social-media persona can certainly kill a budding romance — particularly since, thanks to the rise of dating apps like Raya and Bumble, social media has become one of the first arenas in which partners get to know each other. When Josh, 36, fell for a beautiful fine-arts student who was “fun, smart, cool, and kinky,” it was her Instagram — and the window it afforded into her creative works — that ultimately undid the relationship. “She’d ’gram her sculptures and performance pieces and they were just awful,” says Josh. “It bewildered me that this person was in arts school and could make such thoughtless, unoriginal work. Once that seed was planted, it just grew. When we went to art shows or dinners, I started hearing her differently. [Eventually] we stopped going out.” He adds, “And yes, I still hooked up with her after. I’m a snob, not an idiot.” Meanwhile, Alice, 29, couldn’t get past the way her much older beau used hashtags. “He was two decades older than me and I was mostly okay with that,” she says. “Going out to dinner and hanging out, I hardly noticed the age gap. But there was something about the way he used Instagram … It was like the way a dad uses Instagram. It was embarrassing. It just reminded me how different our worlds were.”
It’s well established that who we are online is not who we are in real life. But sometimes it’s hard to tease out which is which, especially since social media is increasingly becoming the way we interact with certain friends the most. Just like the hapless marks on Catfish get duped into romantic relationships with impostors, many of us can’t help drawing conclusions about those we know in real life based on their online presence. The two-dimensional image that lives on your phone starts to feel more real than the flesh-and-blood person you once split three bottles of wine with over dinner. Which brings me back to Heather: I ran into her recently. She hugged me warmly, and regaled me with hilarious, absurdist stories about planning her wedding (yes, to the hashtag boyfriend). I immediately remembered why I had liked her so much in the first place and I realized that I had largely written her off for reasons that had nothing to do with who she actually was. Social media is a digital maze of fun-house mirrors, a hall of distorted images; it may reflect certain truths about a person, but you won’t know if you can trust them until you glimpse the real-live person behind the reflection. It also might reveal more about ourselves than we care to admit: how quick we are to judge, for instance, or how easily we buy into an oversimplified version of someone, how ungenerous we are with our likes. As Anne explained: “Listen, I think it’s hard to exist in this world. And if this last year has taught us all anything it’s that this shit just doesn’t matter. Be kind to each other. It doesn’t cost anything to give a mercy like.”